Statement from the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada

Friday, October 14, 2011

In 1892 the degrading depictions of a song-and-dance routine where a white man impersonated an old, crippled Black slave that he knew named Jim Crow created what we now call blackface. The structures of these minstrel shows have changed over time. However the images of blackface and the content continue to plague our societies, most recently in Montreal as captured by a past president of our national organization.
We, the National Executive of the Black Law Students’ Association of Canada, stand in solidarity with the Montreal Black and Jamaican communities during this troubling time. We affirm that blackface was not appropriate in 1892 and most certainly is not now 119 years later.

Prior to the Civil War, pro-slavery supporters used the racist stereotypes depicted in minstrel shows as a way of countering the abolitionist movement. Those who wore blackface reportedly defended slavery and used blackface to present denigrating stereotypes of Black people. Following emancipation, the blackface mask continued to be worn in performances that have unfortunately served to define the meaning of blackness for many who by choice or geography had little contact with Black people.

Blackness is not a characteristic that can be reproduced by burnt cork or paint nor can it be represented through the negative cultural attributes that are perceived to be true by media misrepresentations. In understanding the social and historical underpinnings of the blackface incident at the school of Hautes Études Commerciales a professor from McGill University, Charmaine Nelson articulates:

In one fell swoop, this student performance maligned various groups on the basis of race, nationality, religion, language and culture. The students not only vilified and marginalized black people in general by “blacking up,” but also took underhanded swipes at the entire nation of Jamaica (carrying the flag and wearing the national colours), while criminalizing blacks as pot-smokers (chanting “smoke more weed”), ridiculing Jamaican patois (chanting “Yeah mon”), equating the use of marijuana in the religious, spiritual and meditative practices of Rastafari with getting high and partying for the hell of it, and finally, some even wearing hats with fake locks attached (a problematic appropriation of a black hair aesthetic).

We, the next generation of lawyers, professors and professionals, depend on our educational institutions to be proactive in ensuring that our spaces of learning align with the methodologies of “safe space”. As the gatekeepers of higher education, it is expected that all Canadian Colleges and Universities strive for substantive equality for all who attend their respective institutions.

We add our collective voice to the loudening chorus expressing outrage at this most recent incident of racial bigotry and commend the actions and hard work of Montreal's Black student community in raising awareness about the wounds and indignities of historical and contemporary racism.

One of BLSA Canada’s objectives is to encourage law schools, legal fraternities and associations to utilize their expertise to initiate change within the legal system that will make it more responsive to the needs and concerns of the black community. We challenge you to take this a step further. The United Nations declared 2011 to be the International Year for People of African Descent. This offers a unique opportunity to work together to advance the political, social and economic interests of the Black community domestically and internationally.

Collectively we should seize this opportunity to educate by ensuring that diversity promotion and anti-discrimination policies are implemented and enforced in all of our institutions. This is only one way we can begin to remove of systemic barriers. We hereby call on all Black law students and allies to become active with your local BLSA Canada chapter and to stand united against all forms of racial discrimination and note that we are STRONGER TOGETHER.
Designed by Rachel Gold.